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The Origin of the Electoral College

The Electoral College was created during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 held in Philadelphia from May, 1787 through September, 1787. As you can imagine, the delegates debated and disagreed over many issues before reaching a consensus.

The most well-known dispute concerned the representation of the states in the national legislature. Generally, the small states favored equal representation by state and the large states favored representation based upon population. However, the debate also focused on slave populations and ideology. Eventually, the Great Compromise was reached which created the legislative body now known as the United States Congress. As you know, the Senate is based upon equal representation by state and the House of Representatives is based upon representation by population.

The method for the selection of the president was also hotly contested. Early in the convention, the delegates opted for selection of the president by the national legislature. By the middle of July of 1787, however, delegates favoring direct election by the people became more vocal and the issue was once again before the convention.

James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued persuasively for direct election by the people. For instance, Gouverneur Morris argued that,

It is necessary then that the Executive Magistrate [President] should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against Legislative tyranny, against the Great and the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. Wealth tends to corrupt the mind and nourish its love of power, and to stimulate it to oppression... The Executive therefore ought to be so constituted as to be the great protector of the Mass of the people.
His argument was compelling then, and perhaps it is more compelling today where the percentage of millionaires in the Congress far exceeds the percentage of millionaires among the citizenry.

Other compelling reasons were advanced to support the direct election of the president. Some of these were made solely to defeat the possibility that the National Legislature would select the President. These delegates reasoned that an executive selected by the legislature would be beholden to the legislature. As such, the president would not be sufficiently independent and the delicate balance the delegates sought to achieve among the branches of government would be frustrated. There was also considerable concern that members of the legislature would exchange their votes with potential candidates for positions in the cabinet or to gain support for parochial interests that would frustrate the national interest.

The delegates who opposed the direct election of the president by the people also set forth their reasons during the convention. Some opposed direct election simply because they held elitist views. In essence, they did not think the people were intelligent enough to choose their president. Charles Pickney of South Carolina argued that direct election was subject to the “most obvious and striking objections,” one being that the “people will be led by a few active and designing men.”

Other delegates opposed direct election because they believed that there would be as many as five presidential candidates from the different regions of the country who would split the vote. As a result, they reasoned that the winning candidate would only have the support of a small minority of the total electorate and little national appeal. George Mason of Virginia noted that the “extent of the Country renders it impossible that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the Candidates.” Still other delegates opposed direct election because they feared that candidates from the heavily populated states would win most of the time.

The concept of a separate body of electors to elect the president emerged in the summer of 1787. The addition of another proposal for the selection of the president led the delegates to establish a committee to study the issue and make recommendations. On September 4, 1787, the committee submitted its proposal for the election of the president by the Electoral College. With some minor changes, the committee’s proposal was adopted and included in the Constitution.

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